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Diana remembered

Locals with ties to Princess Diana recall her short life, tragic death
Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Already the National Portrait Gallery in London is exhibiting a photographic tribute to the popular royal who died from injuries in a car accident in Paris at the age of 36, leaving a shocked world to grieve. And Friday a memorial ceremony for the “People’s Princess” at London’s Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks will be televised throughout Great Britain.
But America remembers, too, as retrospectives appear in the print and broadcast media. Even in Ennis at least two residents with ties to the princess, award-winning actress Sandra Wakefield and the Ennis Daily News’ own features writer Randy Bryan Bigham, are recalling the short life and tragic death of one of the most beloved and controversial figures in modern history.
Wakefield, a recent transplant to Ennis from Tuscon, where she was a director of the Miss Arizona pageant, had the honor of singing at the 1981 wedding of the then 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer to Charles, Prince of Wales.
“It was the wedding of the century,” said Wakefield who lived in England for a number of years, “and so I made sure to take in every moment of the event. It was at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and I just looked around and wanted to pinch myself to see if I was really there.”
Bigham, whose former freelance career as a writer on the arts included stories on celebrities like Broadway icon Helen Hayes and fashion photographer Berry Berenson, made friends with the late romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland, Princess Diana’s step-grandmother, in the 1990s.
“Unlike Sandra, I have no first-hand memories of the princess,” Bigham said. “My connection to her story is as a reporter. I was lucky to write for some international publications a few years ago, and during that time I interviewed Dame Barbara who had some poignant, as well as funny, things to say about Diana.”
Wakefield, a native of North Carolina, said even if she hadn’t been present at the historic wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales, her membership as one of only two Americans in the prestigious Bach Choir of London would have been honor enough.
“It was a real privilege to be accepted,” she said of her successful audition for the choir that numbered 270, including distinguished British business leaders, politicians and members of the nobility. Wakefield came to know many of them, including Leopold de Rothschild, chairman of the choir, the Duchess of Kent, a second soprano, and Lady Caroline Pride, who sang first soprano and had been a roommate of Princess Diana’s.
The Bach Choir’s concerts and tours and the rehearsals at Westminster Cathedral are memories Wakefield cherishes. But the choir’s appearance at St. Paul’s in July 1981 was one for the record books, Wakefield explained, marking the first time a musical body other than a traditional chapel choir performed for a royal wedding.
“It so happened that Prince Charles was patron of the Bach Choir,” Wakefield said. “Our director, Sir David Willcocks, had been his music master at Cambridge, and they had remained close since. So the prince asked Sir David if he would do him the honor of having the choir perform at his wedding.”
Wakefield recalled the excitement she felt when she first learned about it.
“During a break in rehearsals, I walked up to Sir David to thank him for the opportunity to sing under his direction, and told him my husband and I were soon to return to America,” she said.
Willcocks replied that he wished she wouldn’t go yet and teased her, asking “Would you stay if you had a chance to sing at the royal wedding?” When she gave him a surprised look, he confided in her that Prince Charles had just invited the choir to perform.Wakefield was agog.
“But he told me I mustn’t tell anyone else until he had time to announce it to the rest of the choir,” she said. “Well, I thought I would burst trying to keep such a secret!”
When Willcocks finally let the royal cat out of the bag, Wakefield said all British decorum went out of the room as assorted lords and ladies fled to consult a book on a table in the hall that recorded the names of those selected to appear at the wedding.
She said she was too timid to follow the others at first, fearing she wouldn’t be chosen, but eventually she went to find out.
“When I saw my name my knees went weak,” Wakefield admitted. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Under Willcocks’ direction, the Bach Choir endured rigorous rehearsals.
“We had to know it all from memory,” she said.
Among the songs with which Wakefield and the choir serenaded the royal couple 26 years ago, she remembered the oratorio of Handel’s “Samson” –– “Let Their Celestial Concerts all Unite.” Others, performed to the strains of three combined orchestras, were “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” (Charles’ personal request) and one Wakefield said is especially meaningful.
“The song was ‘I Vow to Thee My Country,’” she said with some emotion.
“That was Diana’s own choice. It was also played at her funeral.”
Wakefield said she can recall the day of the wedding clearly.
“It was an absolutely thrilling feeling,” she said.
“I looked around and realized I was surrounded by nearly every crowned head and elected leader in the world. I knew it would be an historical event so I watched everything because I wanted to remember it all.
“I could see the wedding party coming down the aisle but my view of Diana was obscured during the vows. I was so disappointed that I didn’t get a good look at her during the ceremony.”
At least back home in North Carolina, her parents, Rudolph and Celeste Gregory, got a good look at their daughter when the TV cameras that were relaying the wedding around the world panned across Wakefield’s face as she sang.
“They were so proud for me,” she said.
Having been a part of that famous day, Wakefield was asked what it was like to learn of the Princess’ tragic death a decade ago.
She said she was stunned and grief-stricken.
“I was very impacted by the news of her death,” she said. “I was surprised at how much I was impacted. Diana was an endearing person and had such a lovely heart. A friend called me the night of the accident and she told me the news.
“I turned on the television to hear it for myself that Diana had been killed. It was devastating because so much of her life had been tragic. I was just terribly sad.”
• • •

While as a writer he met and interviewed people close to the princess, before and after her death, Bigham insists his link is peripheral.
“I have no bird’s eye view of anything relating to Diana although some of what I learned is interesting,” he said. “When I interviewed her step-grandmother Dame Barbara Cartland for a project I was working on, it was not long after the princess died. I was not there to speak about Diana but of course she came up in conversation.”
Bigham was in England in 1999 in connection with a book he was working on when he received an invitation to tea at Cartland’s country home, Camfield Place in Hatfield, near London.
Although the two had corresponded for several years, the occasion would be their first meeting.
“Beatrix Potter’s grandfather once lived at Camfield Place,” Bigham recalled. “And it’s where the author based her depiction of Mr. McGregor’s Garden in “Peter Rabbit.” So I was excited enough about that! But meeting Barbara was really something. People may remember her historical love stories and her TV appearances, always dressed in pink with those typically English feathery hats. I didn’t know what to expect –– an eccentric grand dame or a sweet little old lady! I found both.”
Bigham said Cartland was 97 when he interviewed her but she was still full of pep and chattered endlessly.
“When I met her she had a little white Pekingese tucked under her arm and another perched on her lap,” he said.
”She was a tiny, frail looking thing. But her mind was quick and she talked a blue streak! I was amazed at her agility in high heels –– as she showed me around her house I was afraid she was going to trip over one of the dogs. My only disappointment was that she wasn’t in her trademark pink. She was only in turquoise trimmed in pink!”
He recalled when they got around to discussing Diana that Cartland frankly said she despised the media for pursuing her step-granddaughter so unrelentingly.
“Poor Diana,” Cartland told Bigham. “The press still will not leave her alone. She was very dear to me and I miss her. She first came to Camfield Place when she was quite young –– long before Charles –– and I let the reporters take pictures of her in my bedroom reading one of my books.”
Cartland admitted she thought the idea harmless at the time but sees it as a mistake now.
“I ought not to have let her do it,” she confided to Bigham, “for I think it was the start of all her troubles with the press. She liked the attention but it was soon out of her hands and the press mobbed her. I dare say they killed her.”
Bigham asked Cartland: “Did you encourage her to meet the press?”
“I did and I regret it,” she replied. ”I only wish, now it’s all over, that they could leave her be. But they keep printing silly stories. It’s very sad for those of us who knew and loved her. Very sad.”
In addition to knowing Cartland, Bigham said an associate of his, London-based author and journalist Meredith Etherington-Smith, became a confidante of Diana’s.
Along with her writing, Etherington-Smith is a fashion and art critic, and back in 1997 was creative director for Christie’s.
“That was when Princess Diana’s dresses were being auctioned for charity,” Bigham said. “Meredith arranged that sale and in doing so got to know Diana well. I interviewed Meredith for a magazine about two years ago and she told me her lasting memory of Diana is her wild sense of humor. She said she had this wonderful laugh that stayed with you.”
Bigham said Etherington-Smith had set a lunch date with Diana for the Tuesday after her accident.
“When I heard the news that Diana was dead,” he said, “I knew Meredith must be in shock, so I sent her a sympathy note. It was all I could do. I was so sorry for her.”

• • •

Wakefield and Bigham said their stories are just two of many attesting to the goodness of Diana and the influence she had on a generation.
And the fact that they’re residents of a small town in Texas only underscores how far reaching the touch of the “People’s Princess” really was.
Bigham maintains he was only an observer of the Diana story who was fortunate enough to meet some of those who loved her.
But Wakefield, a witness to history by participating in what was likely the happiest day of the princess’ young life, said she holds her memories close to her heart, especially of the song Diana asked the Bach Choir to sing that glorious day. The words are haunting now:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

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Posted by on Aug 30 2007. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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